Thursday, October 6, 2011
Occupied: SlutWalk, Wall Street, and Who's Watching Whom
About 60% of the people snapping photos at Occupy Wall Street were men, and about 64% of the protesters were men. At SlutWalk? Men comprised about 22% of the attendees—and 65% of the photographers.
Well, duh, nothing brings the boys (and their cameras) to the yard like hundreds of women marching in the name of slutdom, right? But I don't think the conclusion here is simply "boys will be boys" or something else along those lines. Let's look at the attendees of each group: There were somewhat more men than women at Occupy Wall Street, which wasn't surprising. In no way did I feel excluded from what was going on at Liberty Plaza, and certainly leftist action has become far more inclusive than it was when Stokely Carmichael remarked that "The only position for women in SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] is prone." But neither was I surprised when, during a recent discussion I had of Occupy Wall Street with a group of people evenly divided in sex, nearly all the men were actively involved down at Liberty Plaza—while all the women, despite having politics roughly similar to the men, kept saying, Don't we need to organize first? or, simply, Convince me. In fact, figuring out why a nongendered movement seemed gendered in some ways was one of my reasons for heading down to the protest. (I came to no conclusions, other than that I'd still like to see some direction within the movement—and that it's necessary, and potentially revolutionary, nonetheless.)
As for SlutWalk, obviously there were far more women than men there, which is to be expected since it's explicitly a feminist event. But the fact that even 22% of participants were men present was encouraging, and I'm going to give the male attendees the benefit of the doubt and assume they weren't just there to gawk at women: The photography gender skew may be explained in part because some men felt that the better way to participate was to document the event rather than try to claim that particular space as their own. (I remember my pro-choice father staying home from the March for Women's Lives in 2004—not because he didn't want to march with me, my best friend, my mother, my mother's best friend, and her daughter, but because transit was a zoo and someone needed to play chauffeur and cook. Dad, dinner was delicious.) More often than not I heard photographers of both sexes ask permission before photographing anything other than crowd shots, and I didn't hear anyone refuse. The air was one of enthusiastic consent, not exploitation. The message of SlutWalk, it would seem, was absorbed.
It should go without saying that I'm sympatico with SlutWalk's goals. But SlutWalk jarred me. The word, sure, the purposefully revealing garb many of the protesters were wearing, the abandon of bodies that I think was designed to be liberating but somehow didn't feel that way at all to me—I didn't get it. I didn't get it, and I wanted to, and I felt guilty for not being able to sign on to the most visible wave of feminist action in several years. I wanted to feel seized by solidarity the way I had in college when I marched in Take Back the Night—hell, when I organized Take Back the Night my sophomore year, so moved had I been in my first march by being surrounded by hundreds of people who were all essentially telling me that it wasn't my fault. I went to see if it was SlutWalk that was my problem, or me.
And when I saw all those men taking all those pictures of all those women, my resistance made sense. My short skirt is, indeed, not an invitation for harassment or assault. But it is an invitation to look at me. And I'm troubled that at a place where the goal was to send a message of bodily sovereignty, plenty were also sending invitations to be turned into an image—an image of someone else's choosing. And I know that part of the point of SlutWalk is that these "images" also talk and walk and breathe and feel and fuck willingly and happily and only when they want to, and I know that the more important point is that our bodily sovereignty must remain inviolate. I get that. But I have to question a movement that seems to draw a good part of its power from being looked at. I have to question a movement whose markers uncomfortably resemble objectification; I have to question a movement that, in attempting to steer the conversation about sexual assault away from women's bodies, invites the gaze right back onto them. I have to question a movement that—when compared with Occupy Wall Street, a nongendered movement aiming to start a dialogue about the uneven distribution of power in supposedly progressive societies—seemed like a show-and-tell of a demographic whose sexual agency has been marginalized, and who are paradoxically urging onlookers to examine the ways in which they have been disempowered by systemic sexism.
Perhaps this is generational: Perhaps the girl I was in the '90s would have happily been chanting "Yes means yes and no means no" at SlutWalk had I been in college today instead of 1995. Perhaps my resistance to SlutWalk and my mild bafflement at Occupy Wall Street stems from me not being young enough, or postmodern enough, or subversive enough. Perhaps my earnest South Dakota roots will show wherever I go. Perhaps, after all, I just don't get it. All I know is that as impassioned as the cries were from women at SlutWalk—whether they were wearing lingerie and the word "Slut" scrawled across their chests, or the jeans and hoodie they had on when they were raped—they were just as earnest as my sense of alienation while watching women reject rape culture while jumping headfirst into another culture that's intensely problematic for a lot of women. I want a dialogue about consent, and I want that dialogue to hold the concept of mutuality in a sacred light. And I am unwilling to siphon off my complicated feelings—our complicated feelings—about being looked at in order to make that happen.
A word about methodology: I attended both SlutWalk NYC and Occupy Wall Street and spent a timed 20 minutes counting everyone I saw either actually snapping a photograph or actively videorecording the events. (I didn't count people who appeared to be there for professional purposes, nor people who simply had a camera in hand, as that would have been everyone. The revolution will be twitpic'd, it seems.) I then stood from an observant distance and from that vantage point tallied up the number of people I saw, dividing them by sex, following a 180-degree visual arc. This is not the most scientific of methods, but my numbers for Occupy Wall Street are close to those published this week in New York, so it seems to work well enough.